As our climate continues to warm, it is increasingly important that our global society rapidly moves away from burning fossil fuels and toward renewable, low-carbon energy and transportation. 2022 is shaping up to be a transformative year for the clean energy transition – especially from a public awareness standpoint. Already this year, we’ve seen a Super Bowl broadcast featuring a plethora of ads for electric vehicles, a high-profile conflict in Ukraine that has Europe scrambling for energy sources besides Russian fossil fuels, and the Biden Administration taking the unusual step of invoking the Defense Production Act to increase production of battery minerals. Many of the minerals needed for cleaner energy and cleaner modes of transportation may need to be mined. However, this crucial transition brings up a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable question – where will we mine all of the metals needed for this seismic shift?
Mining for critical minerals
As the demand for clean energy and need for more electric vehicles and battery storage continues to grow, mining companies have increasingly looked toward the Western U.S. to mine for the sought-after minerals needed to achieve these goals. One of these minerals is cobalt – an essential ingredient for the most common chemistries of electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Roughly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Idaho is home to the largest known cobalt deposit in the U.S., an area west of Salmon known as the Idaho Cobalt Belt.
The Idaho Cobalt Belt is home to one permitted mine (Jervois’ Idaho Cobalt Operations) that is slated to come into production later this year, at which point it will be the only operating cobalt mine in the country. It likely won’t hold that title for long – in 2019 alone, more than 5,000 mining claims were filed in the cobalt belt, indicating that a more serious cobalt mining boom could come to this region.
We recognize the need for metals such as cobalt, lithium, and nickel to power the clean energy transition. We also recognize that we can no longer export the harms associated with mining to far-flung countries with more lenient environmental regulations. Wealthy Western nations have a bad history of demanding these minerals for our technologies (e.g. EVs) from countries with poor environmental and social practices (e.g. cobalt from the DRC). As we push forward with the clean energy transition, we must be cognizant that we are not simply pushing off the impacts of mining to other places.
In the next decade, these battery metals and other critical minerals will need to be mined (sometimes domestically), and would ideally be supplemented by well-implemented metal recycling programs down the road. For other metals such as gold, the case for their need in the clean energy transition remains much more dubious. Many of the prospective mining projects in Idaho are exploring or developing gold – a metal that is primarily mined to represent wealth and is often hoarded instead of producing valuable assets for communities. Other elements, like antimony, are being experimentally tested for battery applications but have not yet been proven to be technologically or economically viable at a commercial scale.
ICL evaluates mining projects in Idaho on a case-by-case basis using factors such as 1) what is being mined (e.g. cobalt vs. gold), 2) how it’s being mined (open pit mining vs. underground mining), and 3) where it’s being mined (who or what is downstream).
Mining is the #1 toxic polluter in the U.S., and toxic waste from mine sites can contaminate downstream watersheds and community drinking water supplies. The environmental benefit of using metals for the clean energy transition can only be realized if that benefit outweighs the environmental impacts of the mining process itself. Some places will always be too special or ecologically sensitive to mine. In other cases where the mine is not located in a high-risk area, we can improve the project by raising the bar on the environmental safeguards in place. We also expect all mining projects to be given a comprehensive, efficient environmental review by the responsible state and federal agencies. We do not support “fast-tracking” for battery metals projects.
With increased attention on the clean energy transition, it is becoming increasingly common for mining companies to pitch their mining projects as “green” – either because they claim the metals they are extracting will be used in green energy applications or because they assert that their mining practices are “sustainable.” We approach both types of claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. On the first point, we assess whether mining company claims have any validity or certainty to them as opposed to merely a PR talking point. On the second point, there is no such thing as “sustainable” mining; the best we can hope for is “responsible” mining that adopts the highest level of environmental safeguards available and will not irreparably damage the ecosystems around it.
The bottom line
The U.S. rush towards the clean energy transition cannot be built upon a foundation of dirty mining that imperils sensitive ecosystems and disproportionately burdens Indigenous communities. Mining for clean energy metals has already raised environmental justice concerns, as research points to many mines located close to Native American reservations negatively impacting their land ecologically, culturally, and spiritually. Furthermore, the mining of critical minerals should not be fast-tracked through environmental permitting. Lastly, any increased emphasis on domestic mining should go hand-in-hand with a substantial reform of our antiquated mining laws dating back to the 1800s that govern mineral exploration and development. Expanding mining without addressing the shortcomings of our archaic mining laws is a shortsighted and misguided approach to the clean energy transition.
Responsible mining of these critical minerals in the U.S. (and elsewhere) can reach all of our goals: support and accelerate the clean energy transition, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and support a robust domestic economy in this green energy sector.
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